Chasing Vermeer

by Blue Balliet; ill. by Brett Helquist

Scholastic, 2003

254 pages

Though there’s just one title, this is really a review of three books: Blue Balliet’s series of art mysteries starring three middle-school kids who live in modern-day Chicago.

I read the first book, Chasing Vermeer, with my daughter after a librarian friend recommended it. She mentioned it, and I picked it up, in part because she thought it might be a good Read Like a Girl book. Unfortunately, I ended up disappointed on that front.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed the book, and so did my daughter.

The story centers on Petra Andalee and Calder Pillay, two Chicago schoolmates and neighbors who become good friends as they solve the mystery of a stolen Vermeer painting.

The plot is engaging and well structured, the setting nicely articulated, the style just quirky enough to be fun but not trite. There are also authentic, positive depictions of family relationships and school – a nice balance to the wealth of post-apocalyptic, hyper-alienated fiction currently flooding the middle-grade market.

But Petra – the girl of the pair – isn’t really all that inspiring. She’s smart but not very strong, a relatively flat character who rarely takes the lead and needs frequent rescuing. Ultimately, I walked away feeling that both Petra and Balliet were holding out on me.

Then I read the next two books in the series, The Wright 3 and The Calder Game. By the time I was halfway through book two, Petra had become far more interesting. And by the time I finished book three, I was highly impressed.

In The Wright 3, Calder’s best friend Tommy (who has been living in New York) returns to Chicago and upsets the balance of Petra and Calder’s friendship. All three of the kids are interested in the plight of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Robie house, which is slated for demolition. But their ability to save it is hampered by the uneasy dynamics of their relationship – until Petra makes a conscious decision to be the mature one and foster meaningful cooperation within the group.

She does the same again in The Calder Game, when Calder disappears on a trip to England with his father. A large Alexander Calder sculpture disappears at the same time from the village where the Pillays are staying, and it’s up to Petra and Tommy to solve both mysteries.

Without Calder around, Petra and Tommy quickly fall into jealousy and mistrust of each other. They might have been able to cooperate on their previous adventure, but there is still no genuine friendship between the two of them. As before, Petra ends up being the first to realize the pettiness of their rivalry and the first to set it aside in favor of focused effort to find their mutual friend.

In the process, she figures out what is needed to build a true friendship with Tommy and deliberately moves in that direction. Eventually, he responds in kind, and they succeed in both solving the mysteries and forming a solid bond with each other.

Taken as a whole, then, the three books are definitely Read Like a Girl-worthy. Petra’s character arc – from bland, shrinking word nerd to confident, mature friend and leader – is both realistic and inspiring. It shows girls that the awkwardness and uncertainties of the preteen years can be managed and even overcome with confidence. And at a time when “mean girls” often rule the roost, it shows that true friendship, maturity, and kindness can win the day.

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